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May 13, 2011 9:55 AM Huntsman joins the climate flip-flop club

By Steve Benen

How can you tell Jon Huntsman, President Obama’s former ambassador to China, is serious about his burgeoning Republican presidential campaign? He’s flip-flopping on cap-and-trade.

Caring about climate change was one of the issues that helped separate Huntsman from the knee-jerk conservatives currently dominating the GOP field, bolstering the impression that he’s a moderate. He even appeared in a nationally-televised Environmental Defense Fund commercial, urging Congress to pass legislation capping greenhouse gases.

And yet, Huntsman backpedaled when the subject came up during an interview with Time magazine.

Already he’s in primary-season mode … junking his support for the regional cap-and-trade carbon-emissions pact he and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger once championed. “It hasn’t worked,” he says now, “and our economy’s in a different place than five years ago.”

Yes, and the climate crisis is in a worse place than five years ago.

For those keeping score at home, Huntsman joins a long list of national GOP leaders who suddenly discovered their opposition to cap-and-trade just a few years after endorsing it. The list includes Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and Sarah Palin, all of whom endorsed the climate policy — some as recently as 2008 — and all of whom have reversed course to make right-wing activists happy.

As for why so many have made the transition from sensible to reckless so quickly, I still think Kevin Drum’s recent item on this rings true.

The answer isn’t very complex. Four years ago, in the wake of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and growing public concern about global warming, corporate America felt that some kind of action on greenhouse gases was probably inevitable. And if it was inevitable, then cap-and-trade was their best bet. From their point of view it probably looked less threatening than a flat carbon tax, which is harder to game than cap-and-trade, and less costly than flat mandates from the EPA. So they got on board, and Republicans got on board with them.

But then a couple of years ago public concern over global warming started to wane and it became less obvious that action on greenhouse gases really was inevitable. So instead of settling for cap-and-trade as their least worst alternative, they decided to fight instead for their first best alternative: doing nothing. And once again, Republicans got on board with them.

This is also made easier by the lack of public demand. When most Americans — even most Republicans — agreed that the climate crisis was a serious threat, prominent GOP officials felt the need to take the issue seriously and present ideas to address the problem.

But now that the mainstream cares less, and the Republican rank-and-file has been told by Fox News that climate science is a communist conspiracy, party leaders no longer feel the need to even keep up appearances.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • c u n d gulag on May 13, 2011 10:02 AM:

    I really don't understand how these people who have families and children and grandchildren aren't concerned for their future.

    Christ, if you can't notice the changes in the last 30 years, you're "Tommy" - deaf, dumb and blind.
    Where do they think they're going to go when when the climate gets more and more unpredictable?

    Space travel is a long way off, and we may not have a habitalble planet to leave from soon, let alone go to.

    I don't understand this quest for every last sheckel. Can't you do the right thing without being forced to?

    Maybe that's 'cause I'm a Liberal.

  • Cap'n Phealy on May 13, 2011 10:06 AM:

    I really, really, really hope Huntsman wins the nomination, because he's got a really cool theme song!

  • walt on May 13, 2011 10:11 AM:

    The mainstreaming of the hard right in America is the foremost national security crisis this nation is facing. Al Qaeda is not doing nearly the damage that climate-change denialism, innumeracy, health-care inflation, know-nothingism, and the racialization of class warfare are.

    We're having political debates with sociopaths. That's the foundational crisis in America today.

  • SadOldVet on May 13, 2011 10:28 AM:

    If and when the Amerikan Sheeple become reawakened to the high degree of probability that our inaction on reducing emissions and mitigating the impacts of global climate change, the repuknicans will be back on board for cap-and-trade.

    Cap-and-trade is a repuke idea that was great until Obama agreed to it! Cap-and-trade is an approach that provides an opportunity for the wealthy to become wealthier by having another commodity market to manipulate. Other avenues for addressing the reduction of emissions are much less susceptible to providing opportunities for the wealthy to become wealthier.

    I do wish that Benen and other progressives were less proponents of cap-and-trade and greater activists about the future that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren face. If nothing is done to make the U.S. a participant in finding real solutions, the climate change will become more severe and faces the possibility that it may reach a point of no return.

    But then again, maybe our species has overused its time as the dominant species on the planet.

  • hells littlest angel on May 13, 2011 10:49 AM:

    The main reason Huntsman is a Republican ascendant is that he is unknown, thus no one knows whether or not he's a shit-head. Time will tell, and since he is a Republican, his descent is inevitable.

  • LoveHate on May 13, 2011 11:14 AM:

    The climate flip flop is the official republican position. As is a federal health insurance mandate and comprehensive immigration reform.

  • TCinLA on May 13, 2011 11:35 AM:

    The good news of all this is, in a hundred years the planet won't have to be putting up with the failed evolutionary experiment in biological intelligence that can foresee the results of its actions and modify its behavior accordingly. The dinosaurs known as homo sap will be gone. Good riddance to our species - 12,000 years of recorded human history demonstrates that in the aggregate we have never done anything positive with our gifts; maybe in the individual we've done well, but get three of us together and the problems become four times worse. And we don't solve them.

  • Stephen Stralka on May 13, 2011 11:39 AM:

    This really is baffling to me. Are these people human beings? If you really are too dumb to recognize that climate change is a serious threat, that's one thing. That's dumb and annoying and that person should never be president, but someone who clearly got it at one point, and then decided his personal ambitions were more important than the future of the human species? That is what's unfathomable to me.

  • weboy on May 13, 2011 11:55 AM:

    Or, perhaps it's because cap and trade is actually not that great an idea.

    Benen essentially admits as much in his post - at the very least, a flat tax on carbon emissions would be fairer and less easy to game (for instance, cap and trade creates an incentive to pollute, as a way to benefit from trades). It's also becoming clear, over time, that carbon reduction standards are likely unrealistic - there's been no movement, basically, at the international level, to impose caps or reductions across the board, partly because India and China have no interest in stifling the economic development that involves considerable levels of emissions (more cars, increased factory output, more power generation, etc). I'm not saying Huntsman or the others on the GOP side deserve kudos for backtracking on cap and trade... but the idea that this makes him or them nonstarters in a Presidential race is probably wishful thinking. We need a better environmental policy at the national level... but in many ways, we also need one that is more realistic, actionable, and enforceable, and that probably means both compromising on some goals and being more realistic about what can be accomplished and asking whether carbon emissions and global warming concerns, alone, should define the best course of action. The problem isn't that Republicans hate cap and trade; as with other concerns - like healthcare or spending or tax policy - the problem is that after saying they think a liberal idea is terrible... they offer no alternative. And, on the environment, there are alternatives. It's the opposition with no alternative that makes the GOP field not serious... and as a liberal, it's the upside we have looking at 2012. Without a proposal, they've got nothing. The problem for the left, though, I think, is that we probably ought to admit, too, that we need an environmental solution that looks beyond ideas like cap and trade.

  • Anonymous on May 13, 2011 12:46 PM:

    @weboy

    It's also becoming clear, over time, that carbon reduction standards are likely unrealistic - there's been no movement, basically, at the international level, to impose caps or reductions across the board, partly because India and China have no interest in stifling the economic development that involves considerable levels of emissions (more cars, increased factory output, more power generation, etc).
    [...]
    And, on the environment, there are alternatives.

    What alternatives, exactly? Addressing Global Warming?

    A Carbon tax? But the political support for a Carbon tax in the US is even less for Cap&Trade.

    This phony argument that there's no global consensus for addressing carbon emissions so no one should do anything hasn't stopped Europe from implementing a Cap&Trade regime. This is simply setting the bar too high, demanding every country address the issue all at the same time.

    In fact this is a very clever way to define the task as intractable so we all lay down our weapons and go home. Has worked wonders for years to obstruct progress on Civil Rights; HCR; Israel/Palestine, etc etc.

  • SecularAnimist on May 13, 2011 1:02 PM:

    weboy wrote: "... perhaps it's because cap and trade is actually not that great an idea."

    Perhaps it's not.

    But the Republicans are not offering alternative approaches to addressing the problem of anthropogenic global warming -- they are denying that the problem exists.

    And the reason they are doing so is simple: the Republican Party is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries. Republican politicians do and say what the Koch Brothers, and other ultra-rich fossil fuel pollutocrats, tell them to do and say.

    If they won't, then they lose their seats to Koch-funded "Tea Party" stooges who will.

  • Gretchen on May 13, 2011 2:07 PM:

    The Fox News noise machine has influenced the general discourse. Last week, responding to predictions of a high of 98 degrees in Kansas City, in early May, the country radio station broke out a "humorous" sketch about the absurdity of believing in climate change, complete with an Al Gore impersonator. Their take was that it's not even a controversy - everyone agrees that it's a joke, it's not happening, it's just the crazy hippies who think there's something to it.
    The thing I don't get, is, we take precautions all the time against possible, but not certain threats. Everyone in my town has fire insurance, even though it's a very rare and unlikely occurrence that your house will burn down. But if it does, it would be a devastating loss, so it makes sense to take steps to protect yourself from a rare, but devastating event. So if it makes sense to pay for insurance against a one in 10,000 risk, wouldn't it make sense to take steps to mitigate against climate change, even if we're not sure it will happen? Wouldn't even a 10% chance of our planet becoming uninhabitable be worth taking steps against?

  • CDW on May 13, 2011 2:39 PM:

    How about giving oil companies tax credits/deductions for serious alternate/renewable energy research?

    CAPTCHA IS GETTING TO BE A REAL PAIN IN THE NECK!

    I am on my 3rd, no now 4th try to get this post through captcha. And letting you know it is the only reason I am commenting here at all.

  • josef on May 13, 2011 3:33 PM:

    Don't worry. Once the crisis is apparent to even the stupidest person amongst us, the American people will demand IMMEDIATE action. Of course, immediate action will be impossible and it will take decades to ameliorate the effects of climate change (if that's even possible by then), but they'll still demand it. And then they'll want to know what's taking so long.

    Some days, it's hard to believe this country was able to put men on the moon.

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